“Why is whataboutism having a moment?” The Washington Post asked in August. Whataboutism is a rhetorical tic in which a person who finds themselves accused of something awful responds by saying, “But what about this other random thing?” If critics claim that President Donald Trump’s pardon of former Maricopa County sheriff Joe Arpaio is morally indefensible, then Trump points to the pardon of Marc Rich or the commutation of Chelsea Manning’s sentence, as if merely citing those examples settles the question. The Post’s Philip Bump noted that whataboutism thrives because of high levels of public distrust, a partisan news media, and a Citadel’s worth of online maesters who are standing by with the odd historical fact.
August 15 had been whataboutism’s high-water mark. That’s when Fox News’s Tucker Carlson, during a discussion about Confederate monuments, put a graphic on the screen that said, “Plato, Muhammad, Aztecs All Owned Slaves.” (What about Plato?!) But that day has now been relegated to second spot on the medal stand. Thursday was an amazing day for whataboutism, perhaps its biggest ever.
What happened was that two giant hunks of investigative journalism landed on Twitter at about the same time. In The New York Times, Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey reported on movie producer Harvey Weinstein’s history of paying financial settlements to women who’d accused him of sexual harassment. And in a BuzzFeed story, reporter Joseph Bernstein used a treasure trove of emails to show how the right-wing website Breitbart “does more than tolerate the most hate-filled, racist voices of the alt-right. It thrives on them.”
If you don’t see how these stories could be hitched together, you don’t appreciate the art of whataboutism. Reeling from charges that it had literally sought line edits from fringe white nationalist figures, Breitbart suddenly found itself extremely interested in the indiscretions of Weinstein. On Friday afternoon, there were a half-dozen Weinstein stories on the Breitbart homepage with headlines like “Silence Is Complicity — The Powerful Said Nothing As Harvey Weinstein’s Alleged Victims Piled Up.” If the whataboutism was unspoken, it was nonetheless pretty obvious.
The fact that Weinstein was a big player in Democratic politics—hobnobbing with the Obamas and the Clintons and giving campaign donations that many politicians are now donating to women’s groups—is surely news. It’s probably less newsworthy that Malia Obama was a Weinstein intern, because Malia Obama is 19.
The Times story sent Weinstein into a typical fit of apoplexy: He both offered an apology and said that he would sue the paper. But if you read Weinstein’s statement, you’ll notice that he indulged in his own bit of whataboutism. After announcing he was taking a leave of absence from his own company, Weinstein declared he was going on the political warpath: “I am going to need a place to channel that anger, so I’ve decided that I’m going to give the NRA my full attention. I hope Wayne LaPierre will enjoy his retirement party. … I’m making a movie about our President, perhaps we can make it a joint retirement party.”
It’s true that Trump has a history of bragging about sexual assault. It’s also true that the NRA’s pursuit of maximalist gun rights deserves ever more scrutiny after the massacre in Las Vegas. But it’s hard not to read Weinstein’s lines as a misdirection technique aimed at his liberal (former) allies: Hey, look! There are more monsters over there!
There was more. “Many in Hollywood liberal elite knew about this for years,” conservative talk-show host Laura Ingraham tweeted about Weinstein. “But they said nothing. Cover up of convenience. $ before principles.” In response, the Twitter account “Scoe Jarborough” noted that Ingraham’s employer, Fox News, had its own pretty famous case of saying nothing and pursuing dollars before principles. The replies to Jarborough’s tweet contained still more pivots: “However, the Dems who express such outrage happily take $$$ from Weinstein.” On Thursday, there was a whatabout for everybody.